What are the milestones in the career of an academic researcher?

Today, I will talk about the different milestones that a researcher may meet during his career. I will start from the first stage, which is graduate studies until reaching the stage of being a permanent researcher working at a research institution or being a well-known researcher. I will give some advices about what is important at each stage of the career of a researcher.

Stage 1: Graduate student

The first stage is graduate studies. The goal of the master degree is to learn how to do research, by joining a research team. At that stage, one should learn how to read research papers about state of the art research,  develop ideas to solve some research problems, develop a solution, carry experiments, and write papers.

During the master degree, the supervisor usually guide the student and help him with some of the tasks (e.g. writing a paper). This is different from doing a PhD, where a student should do more tasks by himself. After completing PhD, one should be an autonomous researcher. It means that someone who has completed a PhD should be able to find interesting research problems by himself (without help from others) and to perform all other steps of a research project by himself.

Normally a graduate student will initially need much help to do research. But after completing a few projects and writing papers, one will become more and more efficient and autonomous. It is important to have that as a goal.

What one should focus on during graduate school?

  • learn to write well research papers (writing is a key skill for a researcher), 
  • publish several papers, and at least some in good conferences and journals (to convince other people of your research ability and then land a researcher job),
  • learn to find research problems and develop original research solutions,
  • improve your presentation skills (not only to present papers at conferences but because researchers who will work as lecturers or professors will be expected to teach well),
  • try to obtain grants and prizes during studies,
  • try to build a network of contacts in academia and have collaborations with other students or researchers,
  • try to publish some papers that may obtain citations (because citation count is sometimes considered as a performance indicator),
  • try to have some teaching experience such as teaching an undergraduate course, or being a teaching assistant,
  • try to have good grades (although this is less important than having good research output),
  • learn other useful research related skills such as finding papers online, using LaTeX for writing papers (especially for science papers), managing time well,
  • learn to identify limitations and weaknesses in the research of others when reading a paper or attending a presentation,
  • try to always ask at least one question when attending a presentation,
  • try to be involved in reviewing papers and other important academic activities.

Stage 2: Postoctoral researcher

Many persons become a postdoctoral researcher after doing the PhD. Such position may be for one or two years and sometimes more, with usually the goal of then obtaining a position of professor or lecturer, or working in the industry.

Why doing a postdoc? It gives the opportunity of exploring new research topics, that are often different from the PhD, and to write more papers further improve research skills, and gives some extra time to find a job. A postdoc will also generally be done with a research team that is not the same as that of the PhD, and sometimes even in another country. This allows to learn other ways of doing research and to build contact with other researchers.

What one should focus on during a postdoc?

  • Find a good team,
  • Write quality papers,
  • Be almost autonomous in finding research problems and doing research,
  • Try to participate in the research of other team members or researchers and perhaps even unofficially cosupervise students,
  • Try participating in funding applications,
  • Work on projects that will lead to papers in a relatively short time and have relatively low chance of failure as a postdoc is often short and may need to show results to then apply for other jobs,
  • Don’t be a postdoc for too many years (ideally no more than two years) as more than that may be considered negative in some fields.

Step 3: Faculty member / researcher

The next stage for an academic researcher is usually to become a faculty member or professional researcher, that is to work for a university or research center and perform research and perhaps also teach.

There are different ranks for faculty members in universities, which depends on the countries. In north america and China some typical ranks in a university  are lecturer, assistant professor, associate professor and professor (also called full professor). Sometimes there are also some honorific ranks such as distinguished professor. Typically, the rank of lecturer consists of only teaching (no research), while the lowest rank that consists of doing research and teaching is assistant professor.

The goal of a new faculty member should be to climb ranks by:

  • Creating a research program that spans over several years with a long-term vision (different from a graduate student that typically do not think more far than a paper at a time).
  • Writing research proposals that obtain significant research funding,
  • Writing high quality papers that have a significant impact,
  • Being an excellent teacher,
  • Obtaining awards, getting involved in international committees,
  • Supervising graduate students successfully, and learning to manage a team,
  • Having international collaborations and industry collaborations,
  • Being involved in university affairs,
  • Having other activities such as publishing books, organizing workshops, conferences, and being a journal editor.

Several young faculty members have problems developing a long term research plan, and/or are still having difficulty finding good research problems. This lead to the inability of obtaining research funding and publishing good papers, and is often caused by not learning to become autonomous during  the PhD. It is thus important to develop these skills as early as possible during one’s career. If one is unable to have a research plan or obtain funding, he may not be promoted and may even not have his contract renewed. I have seen this several times.

Besides climbing the ranks, one may aim at becoming influential and well-known in his field. This requires the same goals but to put extra effort and to work strategically to obtain this goal.

For young faculty members, the most critical period is the first three to five years, where one needs to prove himself to become permanent or be promoted. This requires a huge amount of work because one not only need to prepare new courses as a new faculty member, but also to teach and do well in terms of research.


This post has given an overview of the main steps in the career of an academic researcher. Hope it was interesting. If you have comments and think that I have missed something important, please post a comment below. I will be happy to read it.

Philippe Fournier-Viger is a full professor working in China and founder of the SPMF open source data mining software.

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